The TED talk which I have seen praised most often is Barry Shwartz’s Paradox of Choice. His claim is that the ‘official dogma of all Western industrial societies’ – that more choice is good for us – is wrong. This has apparently been a welcome message for many.
Barry thinks the costs of choice are too high at current levels. His reasons are that it increases our expectations, makes us focus on opportunity costs rather than enjoying what we have, paralyzes us into putting off complicated or important choices, and makes us blame ourselves rather than the world when our selections fail to satisfy. We can choose how much choice to have usually though. You can always just pick a random jar of jam from the shelf if you find the decision making costly. So implicit in Barry’s complaint is that we continually misjudge these downsides and opt for more choice than we should.
Perhaps he is right currently, but I think probably wrong in the long term. Why should we fail to adapt? Even if we can’t adapt psychologically, as inability to deal with choices becomes more of a problem, more technologies for solving it will be found. Having the benefits of choice without the current costs doesn’t appear an insoluble problem.
One option for allowing more choice about choice, while keeping some benefits of variety is to have a standard default option available. Another that seems feasible is using a barcode scanner on a phone, connected to product information and an equation for finding the net goodness of products according to the owner’s values (e.g. goodness = -price – 1c per calorie – 1c per 10 miles travelled + 10c per good review – $100m for peanut traces + …). This could avoid a lot of time spent comparing product information on packages by instantly telling you which brand you likely prefer. Systems for telling you which music and films and people you are likely to like based on previous encounters are improving.
I suspect for many things we would prefer to make very resource intensive choices, because we want to make them ourselves. Where we want to have unique possessions that we identify with, each person needs to go through a similar process of finding out product information and assessing it. We don’t want to know once and for all which is most likely to be the best car for most people. Neither do we want to have randomized unique clothing. We usually want our visible possessions to reflect a choice. This isn’t a barrier to improving our choice making though. Any system that gave a buyer the best few options according to their apparent taste, for them to make the final decision, should probably keep the nice parts of choosing while avoiding time spent on disappointing options.
How much choice is good for us depends a lot on the person. Those far out on relevant bell curves will benefit more from access to more obscure options, while the most normal people will do better by going with the standard option without much thought. One level of choice will not suit all and nor will it have to. We will choose to keep and improve our choice of choices.